Wesley: A ‘man of one book’ and a thousand

November 5th, 2014

The Lutheran pietist philosopher Johann Georg Hamann wrote these priceless Christian words: "The more edifying the speaker, the heavier his Galilean shibboleth weighs on our ears." I have indeed found it to be true that the biblical idiom has an unmatched power to build up its hearers in love. These days I read a lot of philosophy and, whether ancient or modern, it can't compare. Yet this "biblical" upbuilding speech is not without offense. To speak in a way that sounds, well, like the Bible is, in a pretentious pagan age (and aren't all ages), at once obtuse, provincial, unsophisticated, and (how embarrassing) chained to the clunky parable-mouthing particularity of the Man from Galilee. Yet such thick-tongued humility finds ways to love while priests and Levites pass on by.

John Wesley, like him or love him, could not be accused of neglecting the biblical idiom. His sermons glow, or sometimes sag, with Scripture's peculiar phrasings. He famously called himself homo unius libri, "a man of one book." You got it — he means the Bible. Yet, as Randy Maddox notes, Wesley owned over 1,000 books, ranging from Christian history to medicine, politics, poetry, and beyond. The elegant harmony Wesley (like Hamann) saw between the thousands of books and the One Book is already inscribed in his bold self-moniker — do not let the humor pass you by — Wesley announces that he is homo unius libri in Latin. He is an Oxford Bible Moth, to be sure.

In Wesley, Wesleyans, and Reading Bible as Scripture (Green and Watson, ed.s.), Maddox observes how John Wesley himself read the Bible, with an eye to hinting at how we might follow Wesley's lead.

Wesley's practices which Maddox unpacks in his chapter are:

1. Reading the One Book comparatively in its many different versions
2. Reading comparatively the many books in the One Book
3. Reading comparatively in light of God's central purpose — our salvation
4. Reading the One Book in conference with the Holy Spirit
5. Reading the One Book in conference with other readers
6. Reading the One Book in conference with Christian tradition
7. Reading the One Book in conference with the Book of Nature

It seems to me that Wesley's reading practices, brought out by Maddox, are worthy of our exuberant embrace. Confidence that Jesus Christ is indeed the Truth frees us to grow into warm-hearted, edifying Bible-nerd eccentrics like John Wesley, Johann Georg Hamann, and indeed the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:46-55). For Jesus Christ is the Creator, and so any truth we discover in the thousands of books and tens of thousands of weblogs will not be a surprise to him. In returning to the Bible, though, we offer Jesus, in reflection and prayer, the truths we think we have discovered. There, reading the Bible, we are sitting at the Lord's feet (Luke 10:39). Learning from his Word and under his gaze, he receives and corrects, as needed, the truths we think we have discovered amidst the thousands. This is all to the glory of God the Father. In this way we start to become servants of the Word who worship as we read and read as we worship — in Spirit and truth.

Let us pray that we might become women and men of the One Book, and so start to become wise. Let us pray that we might become women and men of the One Book, and so begin to be capable of stuttering, joyful, truly edifying speech.

comments powered by Disqus